Loyalty in rugby league: Reality or myth

Bernie Gurr Columnist

By Bernie Gurr, Bernie Gurr is a Roar Expert New author!

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    Andrew Fifita should be able to do whatever he likes (AAP Image/SNPA, Teaukura Moetaua)

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    The NRL leaves itself open to criticism of disloyalty with players committing to new clubs before the expiration of current contracts.

    This feeling of fan sadness is exaggerated by the player often still having the majority of a season to complete before leaving.

    The recent signing then cancellation by the Bulldogs of a contract with Andrew Fifita, currently playing with Cronulla, has re-ignited this issue. The Sharks signed Fifita a few years ago when he was not wanted at the Wests Tigers. Fifita has blossomed into one of the best front-row forwards in the world, and has represented Australia and New South Wales.

    To read more of Bernie’s writing outside The Roar, head to his website

    Many Sharks fans and other rugby league supporters believe Fifita owes the Sharks some loyalty. However, what does this concept of loyalty in rugby league really mean? Are players simply behaving as you and I do in improving our career situation?

    The difference is players are doing this in a public environment and as part of a sport that, thankfully, generates much emotional attachment to players. Let’s give some perspective or context.

    The Bulldogs and Andrew Fifita’s management company simply played by the NRL’s current rules regarding signing players. I have a problem with the rules themselves, but that’s a topic for another day, so back to the loyalty issue.

    Rugby league fans regularly complain about a lack of loyalty in the game, the fundamental premise being that there once was in the ‘good old days’. Older fans (yes, I would be in that group) tend to look at the past through rose-coloured glasses. We think the game was formerly full of players who played their entire careers at the one club in front of appreciative fans.

    A review of actual player movements over the past 50 or more years reveals a vastly different story. Even the greatest players changed clubs. Johnny Raper was a Newtown junior and first-grader before being snapped up by an astute St George in 1959. Bob Fulton played 11 seasons at Manly from 1966 to 1976, then signed with Eastern Suburbs for 1977 to 1979.

    Arthur Beetson played with Balmain from 1966 through 1970, with Eastern Suburbs from 1971 to 1978 before finishing his career in the then NSWRL competition with Parramatta in 1979 and 1980. Wally Lewis was a Valleys junior and senior grade player, then achieved Brisbane Premiership success with Wynnum-Manly.

    Even the legendary Clive Churchill left South Sydney in acrimonious financial circumstances at the end of the 1958 season.

    Other great players also changed clubs. Kevin Ryan, Monty Porter and Billy Wilson left St George for Canterbury, Cronulla and North Sydney. Ken Irvine played with North Sydney then Manly.

    Ron Coote left South Sydney for Eastern Suburbs, Bob McCarthy and Gary Stevens departed there for stints at Canterbury, while John O’Neill, Ray Branighan and Bob Moses went to Manly.

    Denis Pittard played with Western Suburbs, South Sydney and Parramatta. John Quayle went to Parramatta from Eastern suburbs. John Dorahy, Les Boyd and Ray Brown played at Western Suburbs then all three transferred to Manly in 1980.

    There are hundreds of other examples. The point is that rugby league was founded as a professional sport in Australia in 1908 and players have searched for the best deal ever since, as they should given the relatively short span of a professional career and the inherent dangers of our great sport.

    Players change clubs for many and varied reasons. Better money helps, but also increased financial security via a longer-term contract than offered by their current club. They may not get along with the coach, or want an opportunity to play regular first grade in a certain position.

    They may not like the management and direction of their current club, or may believe their new club has a better chance to win a Premiership. They may want to live in another area, or get closer to family.

    Players also stay with clubs for a variety of reasons, and accept lower pay because they genuinely love their current club, or like the area and are settled with their family. They may be confident of the club’s prospects, get on with the coach and teammates, or be worried their chance to play representative football may diminish at a weaker club.

    Often the player who accepts less money to stay at his current club is viewed as demonstrating loyalty, but the reality is that the player, his family and his agent have assessed all the relevant factors, both financial and non-financial, in order to arrive at the best decision. The non-financial factors should not be under-estimated.

    Bottom line is that players justifiably make decisions in their own best interests, as we all do, and as clubs do. Glenn Stewart is off contract at Manly at the end of the 2014 season and is frustrated by the lack of urgency being shown by the Manly management. Fans are now signing petitions and demanding Manly show loyalty to one of their favourite players. Clubs often push contracted players out, principally due to the demands of the salary cap.

    All we can ask is that clubs and players honour legal obligations and act with integrity and transparency.

    In my time as Sydney Roosters CEO in the early 2000s, we had a player who was contracted but we were strong in his position and the coaching staff did not see him as part of the first-grade squad. We negotiated a settlement with the player’s agent and the player went on to play many first grade games with his new club.

    The reality is that loyalty is a misunderstood concept within the context of professional sport.

    It is great to see players who are able to play their entire career at one club – Anthony Minichiello, Steve Menzies, Wayne Pearce to name a few – but, on reflection, they may not be any more loyal than players who have played for a number of clubs. Rather, the circumstances and objectives of these one-club players and their clubs fortunately aligned throughout their career.

    Loyalty is defined as “faithfulness to commitments or obligations”, so the player’s commitment is to his current club. Loyalty as a concept is usually directed towards a person, a group of people, a belief or one’s country, not as part of a financial transaction or work situation.

    The fans simply want to see players contributing to their teams with maximum effort and these great players mentioned above, who played for more than one club, played with total commitment and so provided great service to themselves and the game.

    So, do not be too critical of the players – they are only doing what you or I would do in a similar situation.

    Loyalty is an extremely admirable quality among family and friends or for honourable causes but is not always relevant in professional sport.

    Bernie Gurr is a former Sydney Roosters player (1978-1983) and Chief Executive Officer (1994-2003), presiding over eight straight playoff appearances, three grand finals and the 2002 NRL Premiership. A lifelong league fan, his first memory is being taken to the 1965 grand final by his grandfather. Prior to CEO role at the Roosters, Bernie was a Senior Executive for the 1994 World Cup in the United States. He joins as a regular columnist on The Roar, but to read more of his writing on rugby league check out his website and follow him on Twitter @BernieGurr.

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    The Crowd Says (59)

    • April 4th 2014 @ 6:49am
      Terry said | April 4th 2014 @ 6:49am | ! Report

      Of course its a myth and the League has always had systems in place to restrict players. Old men always look back to the old days with rose coloured glasses.

      – In the mid last century there was the residency rules where players had to play in their living area and players often put down relatives addressed to enable tem to switch clubs.

      – In the 80’s there was the 13 Import rule where teams were restricted by the number of imports they could have – remember Big League and the asterisks next to the players names?

      – In the 50’s Churchill was refused permission to play in England under the International Transfer restriction rule.

      Nothing is new under the sun

      • April 4th 2014 @ 9:11am
        Bernie Gurr said | April 4th 2014 @ 9:11am | ! Report

        Hi Terry,

        Far fewer restrictions these days for players. Need Salary Cap for greater good of game and players now receiving increased share of game revenue as part of cap increases from new TV deal.

        Thanks for your comment.

        Cheers.

        Bernie

    • April 4th 2014 @ 8:55am
      turbodewd said | April 4th 2014 @ 8:55am | ! Report

      I’ll tell you what is 10 times worse. Complete lack of loyalty to the jersey. Teams like Wests, Broncos, Titans, Melbourne, Warriors change their jerseys yearly and seem to wear 4 different ones during the year.

      That, my friends, is a disgrace and fans cant stand jerseys changing all the time.

      • April 4th 2014 @ 9:07am
        Bernie Gurr said | April 4th 2014 @ 9:07am | ! Report

        Agree totally with you.

        The constant changing of jerseys is a mess plus, to worsen the situation, the new designs of these jerseys are simply awful. The so-called marketing gurus have been given too much leeway.

        Love the old, simple, traditional jerseys – such as the Dragons, Roosters, Bulldogs, Souths – but even some of these teams have made unfavourable changes to their shorts and socks. Teams should have a main jersey that is traditional, then they can have a point of difference with their alternate strip.

        Will write about this soon.

        Thanks for your comment.

        Cheers.

        Bernie

        • April 4th 2014 @ 10:10am
          turbodewd said | April 4th 2014 @ 10:10am | ! Report

          Bernie,

          I have a marketing degree (but work in IT), I see no evidence that there are any marketing gurus anywhere in RL.

          • Roar Guru

            April 5th 2014 @ 6:02am
            Sleiman Azizi said | April 5th 2014 @ 6:02am | ! Report

            I studied some marketing too and I agree with turbowed.

        • Roar Guru

          April 5th 2014 @ 6:04am
          Sleiman Azizi said | April 5th 2014 @ 6:04am | ! Report

          I am under the assumption that fans actually buy all of these weird jerseys. If they didn’t buy them, surely the clubs would have stopped making them?

      • April 4th 2014 @ 10:34am
        JonD said | April 4th 2014 @ 10:34am | ! Report

        I understand there is advertising on team Jersey’s (a separate discussion – I don’t like it, but I understand it) but I feel sorry for fans when I see them wearing their team jersey’s and it’s plastered with advertisements all over the front, back and side. Not only does it look terrible, but it’s dehumanising to be turned into a human billboard just for trying to support your team. And the fans pay for the jerseys! They are paying to advertise for the sponsors!

        I don’t know what the advertising contracts look like, but teams should sell advertising-free versions of their jerseys and fans should buy those ones. If fans refuse to buy merchandise with advertising on it the teams will get the message pretty soon.

    • April 4th 2014 @ 9:10am
      Sir Jamie Lyon said | April 4th 2014 @ 9:10am | ! Report

      All you have to do is look at manly to prove loyalty is a reality. The real pride of the league

      • April 4th 2014 @ 1:09pm
        Pot Stirrer said | April 4th 2014 @ 1:09pm | ! Report

        lol, thats why they havent signed Glen Stewart. They dont want him, Over priced injury prone andnearing the end of his career. If it wasnt for his teammates hed already would have been told.

        • April 4th 2014 @ 6:38pm
          Sleemo said | April 4th 2014 @ 6:38pm | ! Report

          Nope, that is why they have managed to hold on to five or six key players over the past 7 years. They want to stay there and have taken pay cuts to do so. What a great culture.

          Glenn Stewart might leave but that’s in the club’s hands – either they’ve made him an offer or will have, and having received that offer it’s his call what to do with it. He’s shown tremendous loyalty to stay for so long and if he leaves, as a supporter I would have no problems with that whatsoever and wish him the best. We’ve certainly got the best years out of him.

          If his teammates seek to break their contracts out of protest at him leaving, however, that is something I would be incredibly disappointed with. A very petulant act and one that won’t really achieve much (let’s face it, if all of the senior players close to Glenn chose to leave Manly out of protest I doubt they’d all end up at the one club).

          Whatever will happen will happen I suppose.

          • Roar Guru

            April 4th 2014 @ 7:10pm
            Cadfael said | April 4th 2014 @ 7:10pm | ! Report

            Sleemo, that is the whole point. We keep hearing of players disloyalty but what about clubs? We often hear of players wanting to play out their career with their club only to have the club get rid of them. Loyalty is a two way street but the press seems to hammer the player only.

            • April 4th 2014 @ 7:27pm
              Sleemo said | April 4th 2014 @ 7:27pm | ! Report

              I said this below, but in my view…if the club is honest with him as to their situation, and make him the best offer possible in light of their salary cap situation and his standing within the club and game (i.e. balances those two things appropriately) and tell him their position early enough for him to have a look around if he feels another club is best for him, then in my view they have shown a good amount of loyalty.

              It’s been reported that they haven’t offered him a deal in seven months – I highly doubt that, I believe they would have offered him one. Whether it suits his desires is another thing entirely. If this is the case, then they’ve done the right thing.

              Bearing in mind that the club have today gone to the NRL to seek a Minichiello-type exemption or dispensation to keep him at the club…they’re doing all they can in the circumstances. That, to me, is displaying loyalty.

      • April 4th 2014 @ 5:01pm
        SAVAGE said | April 4th 2014 @ 5:01pm | ! Report

        Just be happy that the NRL used the Sharks as the whipping boys in the doping scandals and not you guys, as it should have been the case.

        • April 4th 2014 @ 6:40pm
          Sleemo said | April 4th 2014 @ 6:40pm | ! Report

          Got any evidence to back that up champ?

          • April 5th 2014 @ 12:44am
            SAVAGE said | April 5th 2014 @ 12:44am | ! Report

            No. Im just expressing an opinion. Like evryone else here.

            • April 5th 2014 @ 12:48pm
              Sleemo said | April 5th 2014 @ 12:48pm | ! Report

              Haha an opinion based on no evidence, facts or anything rational at all really. Right. Good one.

    • April 4th 2014 @ 9:19am
      Sean said | April 4th 2014 @ 9:19am | ! Report

      The nature of loyalty in the NRL isn’t that different from other careers. Job security, location, satisfaction and money are all key concerns for players, as they would be for you and I. You add a salary cap into the mix, which restricts earnings and it’s little wonder players and clubs are keen to sort out contracts as early as possible.

      • April 4th 2014 @ 9:59am
        Bernie Gurr said | April 4th 2014 @ 9:59am | ! Report

        Hi Sean,

        The timing of the negotiations between players and clubs needs to be tidied up. Fans not happy with players signing a long time before current commitments finish. Other codes have transfer windows.

        Cheers.

        Bernie

        • April 4th 2014 @ 2:18pm
          Scrubbit said | April 4th 2014 @ 2:18pm | ! Report

          A transfer window won’t work in the NRL. It’ll only limit the clubs while the ARU/super league/French rugby/Japanese rugby/AFL can do as they please.

          • April 4th 2014 @ 2:50pm
            Sean said | April 4th 2014 @ 2:50pm | ! Report

            Agree Scrubbit. A transfer window might tidy up contract negotiations a bit, but RL is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to gaining and retaining talent. Although your point is valid Bernie and I don’t think the way it’s done now is great, I’d prefer to see players float between clubs rather than codes.

            P.S. I enjoyed reading you site Bernie and hope you continue to write on The Roar.

            • April 4th 2014 @ 2:59pm
              Bernie Gurr said | April 4th 2014 @ 2:59pm | ! Report

              Thanks Sean,

              Glad you enjoy the website.

              I think the NRL needs to investigate a valid transfer window. The NRL now competes financially with 95% of players – we may need to back our game to keep stars.

              Cheers.

              Bernie

              • April 4th 2014 @ 7:35pm
                Scrubbit said | April 4th 2014 @ 7:35pm | ! Report

                Although I suppose if they sign a secondary contract with the nrl stating that they are not allowed to negotiate with anybody or else (insert consequence/s) it could work. Like becoming a free agent so to speak.

            • April 4th 2014 @ 2:59pm
              Bernie Gurr said | April 4th 2014 @ 2:59pm | ! Report

              Thanks Sean,

              Glad you enjoy the website.

              I think the NRL needs to investigate a valid transfer window. The NRL now competes financially with 95% of players – we may need to back our game to keep stars.

              Cheers.

              Bernie

        • Roar Guru

          April 5th 2014 @ 6:07am
          Sleiman Azizi said | April 5th 2014 @ 6:07am | ! Report

          I have no hassles with players negotiating and signing whenever they are able to.

          Doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

    • Roar Guru

      April 4th 2014 @ 9:24am
      peeeko said | April 4th 2014 @ 9:24am | ! Report

      Great article Bernie, I really can’t understand what the big deal people make about loyalty

      • April 4th 2014 @ 10:00am
        Bernie Gurr said | April 4th 2014 @ 10:00am | ! Report

        Thanks Peeeko,

        Agree – as long as players play with commitment, fans should support them.

        Cheers.

        Bernie

    • Roar Rookie

      April 4th 2014 @ 10:15am
      Passionate_Aussie said | April 4th 2014 @ 10:15am | ! Report

      A very good question! You’ve written a very well thought out article.

      I believe ultimately its a matter of perception. You can use all the players under the sun as examples of loyalty but in the end only the players themselves know their “faithfulness to commitments or obligation” to a football club.

      A classic example of loyalty to a football club is Steven Gerrard from Liverpool FC.

      How well documented are players like Darren Lockyer’s childhood as to their support of the club as a child and a burning desire to play for that club their whole life?

      • April 4th 2014 @ 10:21am
        Bernie Gurr said | April 4th 2014 @ 10:21am | ! Report

        Good point Passionate Aussie,

        Perception is always important and that is often driven by whether the fans believe a player is “putting in”.

        Cheers.

        Bernie

      • Roar Guru

        April 4th 2014 @ 2:54pm
        Mantis said | April 4th 2014 @ 2:54pm | ! Report

        Gerrard is loyal no doubt. But it is easier to remain loyal when the team can offer you any amount of money for you to stay. If the EPL had a salary cap you would see the loyalty drop immensely.It is hard to keep good players for a long period of time with a salary cap, particularly when they are on the decline (like G.Stewart)

        • Roar Rookie

          April 4th 2014 @ 5:20pm
          Passionate_Aussie said | April 4th 2014 @ 5:20pm | ! Report

          Mantis, you clearly have no idea about football and Gerrard then.

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